Starbucks customers express outrage over green cups, take to the streets demanding explanation

By James Salmon - Wiki Commons

By James Salmon – Wiki Commons

I worked at Starbucks from the mid ’90s through 2014, a period of ups and downs and ups, when things like Frappuccino and breakfast sandwiches (and oatmeal) happened, the sometimes amazing success that came as a sort of surprise, the fact that after 9/11 the company feared what would become of its sales with the dot-com bust but the people just kept coming, as if they needed some form of self-soothing, some kind of daily comfort to keep them going.

And during that time the Holiday red cups happened in the winter, and then the green straws with the cold cups come summer, the Frappuccino: the fact these previously banal, fast food things had now became iconic, a word denoting something larger than itself, a mere cup, a symbol or allegory, a form of art and transcendence, the opportunity to make meaning where none existed, to make it all look planned that way.

And though the retail season kicked off in November and ran through December we didn’t call it a Christmas promotion for obvious reasons; the company had to be as inclusive as possible, it was just Holiday.

I worked on the Holiday promotion as an Ops lead at headquarters, meaning I helped corral whatever the stores needed to know or do. We started working on Holiday in January for the following “Holiday.” We started working up the design so we could get things in production and have time to get it all reviewed and approved.

There was the fear the stores wouldn’t be red enough with the merchandise displays, or the fear it would be the wrong red—because as I learned, brands and companies are about the same as people, everyone wants to believe they’re unique. “Off-the-shelf” won’t do, it has to be an entirely different red, a reimagined red.

The employees were in the same red T-shirts and red aprons as the cups—like a film set, it all had to match (though one year the red came back more a watermelon red than the red we thought, and because we picked a T-shirt design with three-quarter sleeves it made the baristas’ arms look misshapen, stunted, out of scale).

I learned the logistical challenge that comes with trying to cut over from white cups to red cups in thousands of stores across North America (including Canada): the fact we had to get the red into the stores before the launch, and risk people putting the red out before it was time, despite all efforts to direct them otherwise.

There was the fear a high-profile executive would happen into a store and be given a red cup before launch, or worse (!), before Holiday had ended, somehow they’d receive white. It didn’t take many stories like these to make an impression on people. The field’s ability to manage this seemingly simple task became its own allegory, its own symbol, akin to the red cup itself: how well can the stores follow orders?

And so now that I read about the outrage over the green cups expressed by some on social media, I wonder if it says something about us as Americans and our over-privilege that we have this to get upset about—or is it just the passing banality of social media (not much different from traditional media, just democratized), and another thing for someone to complain about amid a dearth of good content, another dumbing-down of the senses?

(And does the logic of negative social media hold the same as a bad restaurant review, the fact a bad review is better than no review at all, which seems to have worked for the Trump campaign and gotten him this far, and hopefully no further.)

I admire Starbucks for the green cups (they’re only temporary, by the way). It’s a disruption that gets attention in a world where that’s what everyone seems to want (attention), and can’t get enough of. It’s an example of the company pushing against complacency, which its leaders warned about, to not view their success as an entitlement, but to keep fighting for it.

That spirit is missing from other retailers I try to support, the Best Buy or Office Max or Targets of the world, obviously scrambling to keep up with real innovation, and showing their age along the way.

In my opinion the green cups are a bit metallic-blue-green, though. It reminds me of the color of an old Cadillac we had growing up, we got from the same guy who had a Christmas tree farm my dad knew, who cut us deals on trees. We always got the Blue Spruce, not for the color but for the smell. And most people see color tones differently, don’t they? It’s what’s inside that matters most and the same goes for brands.

Barren, remote edge of the world (SW Scotland) with Starbucks red cup in foreground, November '15.

Barren, remote edge of the world (SW Scotland) with Starbucks red cup in the foreground, November ’15.


Categories: musings

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27 replies

  1. Call me jaded byt the use of disruption to get attention comes to mind.
    Disruption, n. 1. The God-Emperor of our era, before whom we offer sacrifices and prostration.
    2. An “idea that won’t solve a problem that doesn’t need solving, but will create the maximum amount of media coverage whilst not doing so. A way for rich, well-educated, white men to take on the establishment.” (by David Kernohan)
    View at

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, like the definition of cloud , that’s right , that’s where we’ve mysteriously moved .,,thanks for sharing that May. Problems we didn’t know we have!


  2. This reminds me of shopping for paint – all the creative names each brand comes up with for colors. Our kitchen is Peach Sorbet, our bathroom is Balmy Seas, the study is a green called Environmental. Colors named to appeal to our personal vanity. Sort of like making cat food look delicious and edible. We are, to a large degree, rather stupid.
    I don’t get the cup thing. As long as the barista doesn’t write “batshit crazy high maintenance first world problem lady wants skim decaf mocha with a shot of vanilla” on the side of it, the cup could be Fungal Green and I’d still gulp that coffee down like it was last call.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That grass or sun makes the cup look a bit washed-out watermelon red, no? It has to be social media that makes these things look like a serious problem. I used to just be able to mutter under my breath but now I can do it online and someone else goes “yeah!” and outrage pours in from both sides. My favorite is outage over the outrage (or am I outraged by this?). We don’t really mean it, hence the evaporation of what was never true outrage. It does desensitize and dumb us down overall. I had a dream about Trump being president or maybe it was a thought upon waking. I can’t wait til Tuesday’s over and for the first time, I’m going to vote first thing to clear my conscience, a la smokey the bear’s Only YOU can prevent Donald Trump. Sometimes it helps to dumb things down.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i find the whole ‘outrage’ crazy and hilarious. i understand where you were coming from in your own experience behind the scenes, my former career was in advertising. i was a pr and promotion person. i think i’ve seen and heard it all )

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Social media outrage” is a phrase and concept I could live without. You nailed it pretty well here.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I was a kid my mom let me try her coffee. It was disgusting and I’ve never liked anything coffee flavored since … including coffee. So, the whole Starbucks experience is something that has completely passed me by. Of course, when my father let me have a sip of his beer, I was hooked.

    I’ll never understand the ability of these types of things to motivate people to purchase. When commercials come on TV or the radio, I tune them out. I don’t pay attention. And all of the frenzy on social media that gets whipped up about all of these things I laugh at. And then I see friends and family “liking” the pages of massive corporate retailers and businesses and I laugh some more. People want to be sheep. Baaaa!!! People want to get outraged over meaningless things. First world problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your story about the coffee many share. I wonder then what happened? Was it college or cramming, late nights, the need for caffeine? I can’t do without it. But we are likely sold on the idea of routines like that, it fits with our perceived needs and place in the world, the first world. Baaa! Come and bleat with Shawn the Sheep!


      • Yes. I have plenty of my own food and drink routines as well. The craving for a double cheeseburger and fried that hits right around 11:30 every day, for instance. And the daily beer habit. But I think, I believe, my routines are of my own creation rather than because of mass marketing and social media frenzies.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting, would like to think they’re our own creations too, though there sure are triggers and cues, aren’t there?


      • Definitely triggers. Stress, for instance, which pushes me to my comforts, craving, and routine.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Perfect photo! And very interesting to hear about the Starbucks cup thing from someone who has been behind the scenes. It’s definitely a first-world thing for people to get upset about.

    I first discovered coffee (among many things) at 27 in New York City, late nights and early mornings from the 24-hour deli on Amsterdam and 119th. Have been hooked ever since, and I’ll take it in a cup of any color, shape or size, except small!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, cool scene you shared there in NYC. Thanks Cali. I’m so grateful for the time we had however brief, and for your inspiring advice when I was in a place of uncertainty — thanks again. Hope the UK is treating you well. Glad you liked that photo! That was the day we drove from Edinburgh over to the SW coast, to a place called Stranraer, not far from the ferry we took to Belfast. It was the most splendid scenery, there. And funny: I pulled over to take some pictures and sure enough, amid all that untouched pastoral beauty, I spied a Starbucks red cup, and thought I had to catch it. Good times. Best to you and yours, Bill


  8. As Sammy Hagar says, “There’s no substitute for red.” Except … red.


  9. I never thought much about the color of the cups, until all the commotion. Silly, I thought – don’t people have more important things to get excited about? I really liked the post – thought provoking, great writing, keep it coming!


    • Thanks Beth! I think I featured you in the one I have planned for tomorrow (Friday). Looking forward to dinner…and catching up. No cups. Only ones for wine.


  10. I think complaining about the holiday cup is the new tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

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